Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Guest Blog: Professor Christopher Collier: "The Quality of Mercy"

William Perkins (1558 - 1602)
Wikipedia Commons
“The quality of mercy,” Portia tells Shylock, “is not strained,” that is, mercy is not forced, but “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.”  (The Merchant of Venice, IV, 1  [1596]). Like grace, mercy is not required or mandatory.  It is a gift.  Shakespeare here was no doubt influenced by his close contemporary William Perkins (1558 – 1602), a prolific writer on religious and secular subjects. Most admired among all Calvinist writers, he was a dominating influence on all who came after him.

Because of the general corruption of human nature, we must have laws, and “In every law,” Perkins wrote: “there are these two things: the extremity in plaine terms, and the mitigation implied.”   In other words, the aim of law is justice, and justice is rarely accomplished by imposing the extremity.  Indeed, the law without mitigation is not just.  The essential mitigating factor is mercy.  A curse on the public are those who go around “with nothing in their mouthes but the law, the law and justice, justice; …forgetting that justice always shakes hands with her sister mercy, and that all lawes allow a mitigation.” 

For example, Perkins wrote, theft, a capital crime in Elizabethan England, must be looked at in its context.  See the young boy, starving and cold, who steals bread and a coat “being pressed to it by want….to put this person to death for the fact, is the extremity of the law….”  To render justice, the law must be mitigated by mercy. 

But not too much: there are “such men (as by a certaine foolish kinde of pity, are so carried away,) that would have nothing but mercy, mercy…and would have all punishments taken away….”  This does not serve the public weal.

Though the law must reign, we must also have mitigation in our public assemblies and courts.  They are the expressions of public equity where the quality of mercy finds a consensus and in courts where judges mingle their hearts and brains.  Law is the framework, the skeleton; mercy is the heart and flesh, the mitigator.  Law without mercy is unjust; mercy without a framework serves the public ill.   

Writes William Perkins: “Let all Magistrates think it their honor to be counted merciful judges: let them rejoice, as well, to shew mercy when there is cause, as to execute extremity when there is desert.”

Thus it is that the quality of mercy counts: It must fall equally on every one on all occasions as a deserved gift to smooth the hard edges of the law, a gift that “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.”
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Christopher Collier is a Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Connecticut.  From 1984 to 2002, he was the Connecticut State Historian.